Creatures in the family

Issue 4/2002 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Riina Katajavuori (born 1965) writes a poetry of quick shifts, cinematic cut, changes in point of view: in a translator’s note for Five from Finland (Reality Street Editions, London 2001), I said that they ‘incorporate voices, observations and acts of speech from the street, television, radio, lectures and books. These hums and buzzes are then distanced by being framed as laconic and ironic propositions.’

That observation still holds true for her new book. Koko tarina (‘The whole story’, Tammi, 2001). Ironic titles seem to be in vogue in contemporary Finnish poetry (e.g. Kai Nieminen’s Lopullinen totuus. Kaikesta, ‘The ultimate truth. About everything’, Tammi, 2002): while these eighty-some pages of poetry cannot literally tell any ‘whole story’, they show that Katajavuori’s work has become more expansive. It delineates a contemporary sphere of urban life in a more richly detailed way, employing an overall syntax that seems less discontinuous than before.

The poems’ visual and emotional content transmits itself through a lens of wider focus. What is seen there, is often wistful:

    they would have to find their way out
         of this moment,
  it would soon be morning.
  its tumult and hordes on their way
         to work,
  the streets black with them:
  the first shifts.
  the second, the third

and nothing would hold

That is the ending of a poem circling around the themes of attraction, memory, disillusion – a triad that recurs in other parts of the book, resolving itself in elegiac chords of loss.

Personal, socio-political, cultural relationships are highlighted in sharp and even macabre scenes, as in Fathers and sons:

There are fathers who toss kittens
    one at a time against a concrete wall.
    The sons stand by, alert as silver
              spoons,
 watch closely, shout: BULL’S EYE!

In the original Finnish, the boys shout ‘MAALI!’ – literally, ‘GOAL!’ – but since at least half of the world’s Anglophone readers are not soccer fans, and the action described does not involve kicking but throwing, I have taken the liberty of substituting ‘BULL’S EYE!’ The rest of the poem provides further instances of negative inter-generational ‘masculine’ conditioning, then ends on a masterfully grotesque note:

Tomorrow, at the streetcar stop,
     they’ll tell the fathers to jump like
             rabbits.
     And the whole world’s fathers obey
     and jump, jump hilariously.
     with jutting incisors.

Thus, the mass murderer of one species of soft vulnerable creature impersonates another species of soft vulnerable creature. The poem resonates far and wide, as a sharp summing-up of a powerful strain of Disneyfied ‘warrior’ culture.

The first and last poems in the book, set off from the main text by italic typography, are praises of one of the most basic joys in life, that is to say, food – somewhat reminiscent of Pablo Neruda’s Odes to simple things. They work as a frame to a rich and various Pan shot of the Katajavuori’s world, in which anger, despair, humor, irony, affection and disaffection tumble and iridesce in a way that shows this poet in full command of her word art.

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